We’ve all seen our fair share of social media fails over the years. From small startups to international corporations, no brand is immune to making mistakes on social. The sad part is most of the embarrassing slip-ups brands make can be easily avoided by creating and following a social media style guide.

Investing a little time into creating a social media style guide can save you from big mistakes. When everyone knows the guidelines, they’re on the same page. So there’s less confusion about whether or not it’s ok to Tweet an inappropriate photo or respond to upset customers with a series of swears.

If you’ve been wanting to put together a social media style guide but aren’t sure where to start, keep reading. You’ll learn why a style guide is crucial for your brand, as well as the key components you should include.

What is a Social Media Style Guide & Why Do You Need One?

A social media style guide is the go-to source for how your brand appears and acts on social. It allows your brand to create a cohesive experience across every profile. Your guide includes brand colors, voice, visual guidelines and everything else that distinguishes your brand on social media. It is a living document that should change and evolve over time.

If you’ve ever seen a brand’s Twitter or Instagram feed and it looks it’s managed by 10 different people, chances are they don’t have a style guide in place. No matter how many people handle to your profiles, the tone and appearance of every Tweet, Facebook post or Instagram caption should be somewhat consistent.

For Instance, Dove is about empowering women of all ages, races and ethnicities to feel comfortable in their skin. Their messaging on all of their profiles reflects this belief. From the light color scheme in their visuals to the tone of their posts, all their actions are aligned.

It’s also important to note that a social media style guide is not the same as your social media marketing strategy. Your strategy will consist of more of the tactical information such as what and how often you publish. Essentially, it’s focused on how you’ll reach your social media goals.

While your strategy outlines what you plan on doing on social media, your style guide breaks down how those actions should be represented and conveyed. For example, your social media strategy might detail the type of content you plan to publish, whereas your style guide would explain how that content should look when it’s shared.

So why is a social media style guide so important? Do your followers really care if your social posts have a consistent feel?

While you probably won’t receive a ton of Tweets from customers praising the cohesiveness of all your social profiles, that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Here are a few benefits of using a social media style guide:

  • It gives your brand a personality. You can ask Wendy’s how helpful it has been to have a distinct voice and personality on social media.
  • You can prevent fails. As we pointed out in the beginning, when your social team knows how to represent your brand, there’s less room for error.
  • Quickly onboard new employees. You can have new employees on your social team read through the style guide to get a better understanding of how to represent your brand on social.

Now that you understand what a social media style guide is and why you need one, the next step is putting one together. Every company’s style guide will be unique to their brand and may have different components. But there are certain elements that are pretty universal. Make sure your social media style guide includes all of the following:

Your Social Media Profiles

Let’s start with the basics. The first thing your social media branding guidelines should spell out is all the profiles you currently own. Make sure you include every profile, not just your primary ones.

For instance, Nike has several profiles on each platform. They’d want to list each one in their style guide.

nike twitter profiles

Another overlooked part of your social media style guide is naming conventions for your profiles. There will always be new platforms to join, so it’s helpful to set guidelines for how your usernames will be formatted.

Prepare for scenarios where your exact company name isn’t available. For instance, if your company’s name is Chipmunk, it’s likely that the username will be taken on every platform. So you should outline what your acceptable backups will be such as adding HQ on the end.

Brand Voice

Your social media voice is one of the top things that will distinguish your brand from other companies. Your voice should be consistent across all mediums whether it’s commercials, social media ads, Tweets or Instagram posts. For instance, if you’re funny and humorous on Facebook but all of your YouTube videos are serious and straight-laced, it sends mixed messages.

We can’t tell you what your social media voice should be since it represents your brand. But it should be reflective of how you want your brand to be perceived. That might mean one or more of the following:

  • Friendly
  • Helpful
  • Casual
  • Sarcastic
  • Bold
  • Energetic
  • Cheerful and upbeat
  • Formal
  • Young and trendy
  • Deadpan or dry humor

In order to help find your social media voice, it might be helpful to look back at your past content. Whether it’s a blog post, ad copy or other messaging, pay attention to the tone and emotion conveyed. You can also look at what other brands are doing on social media. You don’t want to just copy another brand’s voice, but it could give you some inspiration.

Once you’ve settled on your brand voice, write it down in your social media style guide. The key is to be as descriptive as possible. Don’t simply write:

Voice: Funny

Instead, you might have something along the lines of this:

Voice: Clean and playful humor. Responses should be upbeat, optimistic and positive. Avoid being sarcastic or mocking customers, followers or other brands.

Another helpful tip is to include screenshots with examples of posts from your brand or others that showcase the tone you want to establish. Whoever is reading your social media style guide should be able to pick up on your brand’s voice with ease.

Grammar & Terminology

Grammar style guides aren’t just for your website. Your social media posts should follow certain grammatical standards as well. This goes beyond whether or not you use AP Style. It extends to any terminology you use in-house, when to use exclamation points and other things that help create consistency in your content.

You can be as detailed as you’d like here, depending on your brand’s preferences. If you already have a grammar handbook for your website or blog, you could carry over a lot of the same rules to your social media style guide.

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Post Formatting

Some brands like to use a specific format for sharing links, status updates or other types of posts. For instance, Tweets might follow a format of headline, link and hashtag. Or your brand might choose to list all your hashtags within the first comment of an Instagram post rather than the caption.

Pringles takes a very quick and brief approach with their Tweets, keeping most of them to just a handful of words.

All of these small nuances make it easier for your team to share content and streamlines your process.

Another thing to consider is attribution for your content. Some brands send every Tweet and Facebook post as the company. Others prefer to leave a signature of some kind to let people know who they’re chatting with.

For instance, the social support team at Delta Airlines initials Tweets that are responses to customers. This makes it easier to identify who responded to each Tweet.

Hashtag Usage

Not everyone uses hashtags the same way. Some people will cram as many into a Tweet as Twitter will allow. Others use them once in a blue moon. Keep things organized by outlining how people should use hashtags in your social media posts.

Your style guide should also include a list of all of your branded  and campaign-specific hashtags.

Visual Guidelines

Since most social networks are highly visual, your social media style guide should set parameters and standards for any images you share.

There are two major types of visuals to cover inside your guide:

  • Photos, graphics or videos shared within posts
  • Profile images and header graphics

If you’ve ever looked at a company’s Instagram feed and noticed that it seems themed or really well put together, it’s usually because it was planned out. For instance, take a look at Play-Doh. Their feed is colorful and vibrant, but the posts don’t clash against each other.

playdoh instagram feed

Within your style guide, you can lay out:

  • Brand colors
  • Fonts for graphics
  • Acceptable color combinations, per network
  • Photos of your office and team members
  • Logos

With all of your design assets in one location, it’s easier for your team to create and share visuals that don’t look out of place with the rest of your feed.

Another very convenient way to ensure the images your team shares align with your social media style guide is to use Sprout’s Image Asset Library. The asset library is a built-in feature of Sprout (for enterprise level users) that catalogs your brand’s inventory of visuals.

This is particularly helpful for companies with employee spread across several cities or countries. Rather than go through the hassle of storing your visual assets separately, team members can go straight to the asset library within Sprout and publish directly from there. It also cuts down on the time needed to get approval for visuals to share, since all the images have already been approved.

Handling Competitor Interactions

How does your brand treat interactions with competitors on social media? Is there friendly competition or do you ignore them altogether? If your company is in a competitive industry, there’s a chance that your audience will mention them to you or they might even engage directly with your brand.

Use your social media style guide to detail how your company handles these situations. A lot of it will have to do with your brand voice. If you have a witty or sarcastic voice, you might respond like Wendy’s.

On the other hand, if your brand is a little less savage, you might respond more like Pizza Hut.

Again, it’s all about creating consistency and establishing your company’s personality and social media style.

Legal Concerns

The last thing your company needs is to run into legal issues over a Tweet or Facebook post. If you’re in an industry with regulations and restrictions, add important information on staying compliant in your social media style guide. For instance, many government agencies have rules for what they can and cannot publish on social.

There are also some general legal considerations to keep in mind like copyright violations or even regramming someone else’s image without permission. It’s always better to be safe and cover all your bases.

Responding to Questions

When customers ask questions, share your content or engage with you, how should your team respond? Formalizing this in a style guide will keep everyone on the same page and create cohesion.

It’s similar to if you were to call your cable company with a question about your bill. You’d probably be upset and confused if two different reps gave you completely different responses. The same thing applies to social media. Even if there are different people managing your profiles, they’re all posting and responding as your brand. So their responses need to be consistent.

Customer Personas

All of your customers aren’t the same, so the way you talk to each shouldn’t be either. Identify different customer personas that your brand encounters or is targeting. For each persona, you could include:

  • What type of messaging your team should use
  • Specific photos that target them
  • Colors that are more likely to draw them in

Understanding the contextual needs of each persona will give you the ability to create more targeted campaigns and better resonate with each segment you’re trying to reach.

Social Media Style Guide Examples

Now that you have an idea of what to include in your social media style guide, the next question is what does it look like? No two style guides look the same, or are even published the same way. Some companies might have a printed manual while others choose to let theirs live online.

Since these guides can contain somewhat sensitive information, they’re rarely made public. However, we’ve compiled a list of some examples we’ve found to give you some ideas.

NYU Social Media Style Guide

The NYU social media style guide touches on many of the elements we’ve mentioned such as voice, grammar/styling, hashtags and more.

NYU social media style guide

See the full guide

Society of Women Engineers Social Media Style Guide

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) has several members, as well as people that manage their social media profiles. So their social media style guide is a way to let members and others know how to use social effectively as well as how to handle their profiles.

SWE Social Media Style Guide

See the full guide

Richland Community College Social Media Style Guide

Richland Community College has a fairly in-depth social media style guide that covers everything from what type of tone to use in posts to how to their crisis management procedures.

Richland social media style guide

See the full guide

Instagram Social Media Style Guide

While it’s not a traditional social media style guide, Instagram created a site for brands interested in mentioning the company on social media and other outlets. If your brand is widely referenced in media or by journalists, creating something similar could be a good idea to make sure you’re being mentioned in your best light.

Instagram Style Guide

See the full guide

Get Your Social Style in Order

Hopefully the tips and examples in this guide gave you some ideas for your own social media style guide. Keep in mind that this should be a living document that’s constantly growing and evolving. Use the sections we described as your base and customize your guide to fit your needs.